Baby Hints & Tips

Guiding Children’s Behaviour

Expert tips by Jan Jones (Early Childhood Educator)

The first step to guiding children’s behaviour is understanding what is behind the unwanted behaviour. (see STAR charts in Behaviour article)

  • When behaviour is occurring as a result of difficulties encountered in your child’s physical environment or through discomfort or pain, then steps must be taken to address these physical problems, as behavioural strategies will not be effective.
  • When behaviour is occurring as a result of past or current learning being no longer appropriate, new responses will need to be taught.

Managing difficult behaviours:

  • Give positive instructions: tell your children what to do rather than what not to do; for example, instead of saying “Don’t run”, say “Take small steps on the wet tiles.”
  • Convey your instructions clearly and calmly: before giving your instruction make eye contact, and ensure you have your child’s attention. Use a quiet voice rather than shouting out the instruction.

When initial instructions are not working

  • Change the demands: with the exception of strategies related to safety, if children are not responding to demands, consider simplifying them, or using different words.
  • Avoid escalating confrontations (do something different)
  • Work as a team: let other people who care for your child on a regular basis, such as childcare workers or grandparents, know what strategies you are using.

Teaching children social skills:

Increasing evidence suggests that an effective approach for addressing difficult behaviour is to teach children social skills and promote their emotional development. Benefits to promoting your child’s social and emotional skills include:

  • Explains growing up
  • Helps teach adaptive thinking
  • Helps children regain emotional control
  • Promotes future time away for parents

Common behaviours related to emotional development are Tantrums, Separation Problems, Hurting Others and Sharing.

Tantrums: All children will at some stage have tantrums. Tantrums are often very active and include crying, screaming and yelling, stamping feet, rolling around on the floor and can involve children holding their breath. Tantrums occur when children lose control of their emotions. Parents can help children learn how to manage their emotions.

Separation Problems: All parents and children learn to cope with temporary separations from each other. Parents and children can benefit from the time spent with other people. Separation problems can involve fretting, crying, screaming or clinging to caregiver. Most children at some stage will experience separation problems. As your child gets older and learns that you always come back to them, they will learn how to separate calmly from you.

Hurting others: Children sometimes hurt others: this could include biting, scratching, hitting or hair pulling. The reason for this behaviour needs to be determined before this behaviour can be altered. For example, hurting others usually gets a big reaction, is this rewarding your child? Has your child lost control? Is your child frustrated?

Sharing: Learning to share is an important part of growing up. Children under 5 years of age are naturally egocentric (think mainly of themself) and sharing is a difficult concept to learn. Try putting yourself in their shoes. If you had a new car and a neighbour wanted to borrow it, would you be willing to share? Children need lots of practice in order to manage sharing. Setting up scenarios where children have to share can help them to understand this concept eg. tea parties with one teapot and several cups, several toy cars and one petrol pump.

Some behaviour strategies:

Modelling: All children learn from watching adults. Parents have a key role in demonstrating appropriate behaviours and interactions. Children learn what is acceptable and preferred behaviour through copying what their parents do or say, for example, children may learn how to share through parents sharing something with them such as a snack, or through them being given a turn at something the adult is doing.

Establishing guidelines: Boundaries or limits are necessary for children to feel secure and trust adults to keep them safe. Keep limits to a minimum and always tell children what you want them to do rather than what not to do eg. “Please walk inside” rather than “”Don’t run.” Children are more likely to cooperate if they are involved in behavioural guidelines, but expect children to learn gradually, help them cope with their feelings and emotions.

Offer children choices: This empowers children. If children can have a choice in some activities they are less likely to resist when you need to make decisions. Some safe choices may be “Which jumper would you like to wear? The red or blue one?’ or “What would you like for breakfast? Toast or cereal?”

Consistency: It is not always possible to be consistent 100% of the time. Repeated practise is required. It is estimated that children need to repeat an activity 24 times before the activity is learnt. Adults need even longer, so you will need to keep practising the strategies continually until they become easier for you to apply and for your child to learn from them.

Use physical comfort: When babies get upset cuddles are used to soothe them, this is the same concept for older children. The child’s behaviour tells you that they have lost control, staying with children teaches then that you are willing to help them; ultimately the skill you are trying to teach them is about how to regain control.

Time away: Sometimes children will lose control to such a degree that physical comfort is not possible. Time away can be used in these situations. Time away involves children being offered a safe place to go off by themselves to calm down and make them feel better. In public, this could involve sitting with your child on a bench until they have calmed down.

Routines: Consistent daily routines help children anticipate what will happen next. This builds a child’s security. Routines can also be used to teach a child a new skill, for example a toileting routine can help your child to become toilet trained. Through using a routine your child will understand what they have to do next with little or no supervision needed, building their competence and self-esteem.

Redirection: Observe your child’s behaviour and consider if there is an acceptable alternative outlet for your child’s behaviour, eg. if a child is throwing a ball inside it is possible to move them outside where their choice of activity is appropriate, by saying “It’s okay to throw balls outside.”

Distraction: If it is not possible to redirect your child’s behaviour, distraction can change your child’s focus. This may be used if their behaviour cannot be accommodated, for example, if it is raining outside so the child can’t go outside to throw the ball then try distracting with a favourite toy or a game.

Expectations: Have realistic and positive expectations of your child.

Co-operation: Ask for your child’s co-operation in an activity, for example, “Can you help me to put on your shoes?” rather than “Put on your shoes.”

Body Language: Your body language can be used to accentuate communication with your child and build trust. Use a low voice, make eye contact and get down to the child’s level.

Empathy: Teach your child empathy, about how their behaviour affects you and others. For example, if your child hits another child, ask your child how they think the other child feels.

Reflective Statements: These let children know that you understand their feelings and helps to label their feelings in a non-judgemental tone, for example, “You seem to be feeling angry today.” This gives children the message that negative feelings are okay but we need to help children have appropriate outlets for their emotions.

Positive methods of behaviour intervention focusing on teaching appropriate ways of behaving have shown to be far more successful with children than methods that are negative and emphasise punishment.

How important do you think social skills are in helping to guide your child’s behaviour?

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